“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)
As the worst global economic “downtown” (recession, depression, catastrophe) in more than 60 years continues to deepen, there has been a steadily escalating response by people around the globe – of protests, strikes, demonstrations and riots.
Always among the first in the industrialized world to down tools and reach for rocks, more than a million workers went on strike in France in January, the first general strike in response to the new great depression. Two million people took to the streets in marches and Paris was rocked by riots protesting President Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis.
Around the same time, Chinese officials issued a stark warning about possible mass unrest in China in response to the dire economic situation there. Of course, there have been violent street protests in Chinese cities on an almost daily basis for the past few years, primarily by exploited and abused rural migrant workers in response to a range of grievances – such as violence by the police and the failure of factory owners to pay them, often for months of work. These protests and riots have been growing in frequency and intensity but news of them is suppressed in China and they are little noted or commented on outside of China. That the Chinese government is now publicly issuing warnings is a sign of how serious they think things will get. As Chinese exports to the US drop off precipitously in the wake of the global recession, more and more of the factory owners that have been churning out all those cheap exports are likely to lock out their exploited workers and walk away without paying them. Chinese peasants have rocked the nation there more than once – look for it again.
Meanwhile, in England, MI5 (the “spooks,” responsible for domestic security/spying) has gone on the alert for bank riots and The Guardian is reporting that police are preparing for a “summer of rage” as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets. A poll is showing that more than a third of British voters believe the Army will need to be called in to deal with riots against financial institutions and the economic crisis more generally. Reflecting the angry mood there, a writer for the UK’s Observer boldly and bluntly headed a recent commentary, “Riot? If I were 20 years younger I would take to the streets.”
And there have been protests and riots elsewhere in Europe – including violent protests and large riots in Latvia, Greece, Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania – mostly under-reported in the mainstream media outlets, particularly in the USA. Iceland went bankrupt at the end of last year – yes, that’s right, bankrupt, the whole country – and demonstrations there have forced out the President.
Meanwhile, closer home…
Santa Clara shocked by 6 murder-suicide deaths
Gunman blocks NY center’s door, kills 13, self
3 dead, 1 injured in possible Fla. murder-suicide
Gunman ‘lying in wait’ kills 3 Pittsburgh officers
And that’s just the past week. The past week.
While none of this is necessarily primarily a response to the economic crisis, there are certainly connections. The Guardian is reporting that the Binghamton gunman “was depressed after recently losing a job. ‘He had lost a job recently and was somewhat angry,’ Matthew Ryan [Binghamton’s mayor] told ABC. ‘He had language issues, didn’t speak English that well, and was really concerned about his employment situation.'”
Even when the overt or precipitating cause seems to be something domestic – the “domestic dispute” behind the Pittsburgh shooting or the marital problems that are being blamed for the Santa Clara deaths – that is not to say that the recession and unemployment, and the anxieties they engender, are not implicated. As Billy Bragg notes in “Valentine’s Day is Over,” there is a strong linkage between economic problems and domestic violence – “that brutality and the economy are related now I understand.” Making the same point from the opposite direction, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote (in Where Do We Go From Here?),
A host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts among husbands, wives and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on the scale of dollars is eliminated.
It follows of course that in the opposite case, in times of widespread economic insecurity, when our worth is measured on that scale of dollars and found to be very low indeed, when whatever dollar value we did have has been gutted by economic collapse and we can’t sell ourselves on the free market of employment, the psychological changes are all to the bad.
On the other hand, studies have shown that rates of suicide and domestic violence tend to decrease during extended periods of civil unrest. People who join together to protest injustice develop a sense of community that supersedes individual circumstances, and there is empowerment and dignity from taking to the streets to “speak truth to power.” This personal empowerment and sense of community surely would lead to a reduction in the rage, fear, isolation and despair that seem to underlie so many of these shootings and murder-suicides.
As everyone grapples with the horrific shootings of the past week, and the past month, here in the USA, and tries to come up with explanations and responses – why? what can be done? – may I propose a possible, partial answer: Let’s bring people together in a collective struggle for economic justice. Let’s join the rising tide of loud and angry public protest over the economic crisis. Let’s fight the power. Let’s run wild in the streets.